Book from past gazes into next millennium

March 16, 1997|By Gus Crenson

THE WORLD WILL BE a much better place to live in in about 1,000 days. By Jan. 1, 2000, there will be no state or federal taxes of any kind. No crime. No jails. No professional athletes. No military. No lawyers. No guns. No poverty. No advertising.

And, oh yes - newspaper editors will be elected by readers.

All these happy changes will have come to pass by the start of the new millennium, according to Edward Bellamy, author of "Looking Backward: 2000-1887," published in 1888 by Houghton Mifflin. The book was a runaway success. It sold more than 1 million copies and was translated into four other languages. Its message resonated with Italian anarchists, Dutch socialists, Russian revolutionaries, English social critics.

"Looking Backward" is the story of Julian West, an upper-class 1880s Bostonian who falls into a trance after he takes a mysterious sleeping potion. He sleeps for 113 years.

In Bellamy's new world, we all work for the government. We all get the same wage. Each of us has a credit card (he got that right!) on which his (or her) annual wage is entered. Each time you buy something, its cost is deducted from your credit card. There is no money. You do all your buying in a government-run mall which keeps samples of everything you could possibly want. A system of pneumatic tubes moves everything along. Your purchase is usually waiting by the time you get home. The work day is four hours. Vacation is six months per year. Working years are age 21 to 45. Mentally and physically handicapped do light work according to their capability, but get the same wages as everybody else.

Bellamy's retirees in the year 2000 live to "85 or 90" (not too far off base, but a radical notion in 1887) and spend their retirement years in cultural pursuits, travel or any recreation that pleases them. He doesn't mention health care.

How did we come to this happy pass?

Well, says Bellamy, corporate giants at the end of the last century got bigger and bigger, gobbling up competition, and the rich got richer. Until there was only one giant conglomerate. This monopoly the government took over because the people demanded it. And now, he says, we "enjoy the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense."

In Bellamy's world housework is history. People take their meals in community dining rooms. It's cheaper, and the food is better prepared than anything Mom could cook at home. All washing and ironing is outsourced. Women's wages are the same as men's, but they work shorter hours and get rest stops, plus longer vacations. They are assigned only work they can handle. Maternity leave? Certainly.

In relations with men, women are free to declare their love first, a radical notion in 1887.

In the end, though, as one current critic observes, Bellamy created a world in which women reflected the 19th century ideal: "pure, pious, domestic, and submissive." Still, he was a hero to most 19th-century feminists. One women's rights leader pronounced his book "the book of the century."

You will look in vain in "Looking Backward" for the gimmicks and gadgets of technology that are part of our baggage as we enter the new millennium. There are the pneumatic tubes. There is the adaptation of the telephone into a kind of radio. And on rainy days, a waterproof covering automatically turns the sidewalk into a "dry corridor." That's about it.

"Looking Backward" is, of course, a socialist tract. And a persuasive one. Part of its appeal was that it awakened Americans to the possibilities of change. And it won converts to socialism by making it respectable, exciting and desirable.

On March 30, 1888, the Boston Transcript published a review of "Looking Backward." The reviewer wrote favorably of the changes Bellamy foresaw but couldn't swallow his timetable. He thought the changes would take 75 centuries - not just one. Bellamy wrote a long letter in rebuttal. Part of his windup: "'Looking Backward' was written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us and not far away."

General interest in "Looking Backward" tailed off in the 1920s, but scholarly interest hasn't died. There are scores of books and articles about Bellamy and his works. Critics are still dissecting "Looking Backward" after a hundred years and more.

Bellamy's millennial forecast was, indeed, a little off. On the other hand, many seers at the close of the first Christian millennium were projecting the end of the world on Dec. 31, 999. His crystal ball was less crowded than that.

Gus Crenson is a free-lance writer who lives in Towson.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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